In 1969 a young Bridgewater College graduate and his wife drove east over the Blue Ridge Mountains to Greene County to tackle a mammoth task: begin a football program at William Monroe High School.
Martin Mooney had no idea then what he was in for when he told Kenneth Comer, Greene County General Supervisor Education, that he’d accept the job.
“I was hired on the spot,” said Mooney, 73, recently. “He was just thrilled to get football started in the county. I was just happy to have a job. I remember I told my wife I was going to buy a 1969 GTO with my first paycheck. She showed it to me; I couldn’t buy a Volkswagen with it.”
Alice Mooney, 71, laughed, “After the initial interview he was so excited that he was hired and then he said ‘and they’re going to give me $200 extra for coaching football.’ He thought that was just wonderful.”
But it really was starting from absolute scratch. If Greene County was small, William Monroe High School, then comprised of eighth- through 12th-graders, was miniscule with only 395 total students.
There was little equipment and no field for the Dragons—and the team was full of boys who’d never played football.
After an initial meeting and first practice in early August 1969, only about 19 returned for the second day of practice.
“I had (fellow coach) Hunter Birckhead helping me get the car and go pick the rest up,” he said. “It was a little rougher than they first thought. They thought they’d look nice a uniform, but yeah, it’s a physical game, too.”
Alice Mooney was an integral part in the initial success of the team—helping to form the school’s first booster club to fund necessary equipment and save for a field. Every game the first year was played away from Monroe.
The team practiced first near the old cafeteria and then next to the elementary school where the softball field is now.
“That’s the best field in the whole county,” Mooney laughed.
Alice Mooney would leave work early on Fridays to get the food to run the concession stand.
“I’d work until the game started and then I’d go run and watch the game,” she said. “I’d come back and help at halftime. Even his mother would come up from Charlottesville and help. We’d work out butts off.”
Alice Mooney would hold bake sales in front of the bank to raise money for the team, and in the fall they made $444 making apple butter, according to a 1969 article in the Greene County Record.
“And in the concession stand the parents were willing to help—all the parents were wonderful,” Alice Mooney said.
The first year there were many learning experiences for the fledgling team.
“They put us in a district where these schools had had football programs for years and years,” Mooney said. “That first year we won one game against Miller School—and we beat the pants off them.”
Other teams the Dragons faced that year included Fluvanna County (32- 12), Goochland (26- 0), Powhatan (30-0), Madison County (36-24), Blue Ridge School (6-0), Buckingham (53-16) and Cumberland (18-8).
“I put the guys on a weight-lifting program like we had at Bridgewater,” he said. The weights were located on the stage in the old gymnasium which was located where the current Performing Arts Center is now.
The next year, the team was moved to the Skyline District, comprised of mostly teams in Shenandoah Valley.
“They were supposedly tougher than where we came from,” Mooney said.
However, the Dragons began showing their fire on the field bringing winning seasons. In 1970, William Monroe went 5- 3-1 and in 1971 they went 8-2, slaughtering half of their opponents and winning the final six games in a row.
In 1971, Faulconer Construction Company’s bid of $42,325 was accepted by the school board for grading, drainage and seeding a new field for William Monroe. The first home game, under lights, for the Dragons was in 1972. The boosters got a bit of help funding the project after the highway department paid the school system $40,000 for the land it took behind the schools to build the four-lane Route 33 bypass. For those who’ve been in the county for any length of time, the concrete bleachers at the field were put in in 1973. A $5 million facilities upgrade was approved in 2010 for the new football field, track, bleachers, baseball and softball fields—which is what stands now behind the high school.
After 23 years, Mooney’s Dragons earned top spot in the state in 1991 after handedly defeating Parry McCluer High School, then a five-time state champion, 35-15 on Dec. 7 in Buena Vista in front of 5,000 people.
Current Dragons head coach Jon Rocha played for Mooney on that championship team—blocking a punt and allowing Monroe to get on the boards first.
“I’d have to say winning the state championship had to be his crowning glory,” Alice Mooney said.
Mooney retired as football head coach in 1999 and from teaching in 2002, which is also the year William Monroe named the football field after him.
When asked what he’d like people to know about Dragon football in the early days, Mooney said: “All the coaches used to say we were very tough and hit hard. Yeah, it was a struggle getting there, but we had some good athletes, tough kids and a lot of speed.”
Mooney said he knows he was born to coach.
“I love the game,” he said. “These kids had never played, so they didn’t know what bad was and I enjoyed it.”
Alice Mooney, who retired from the school system after 36 years, said it was so fun to watch her husband as a coach.
“I didn’t mind the work and he didn’t mind carting the players home or bringing them home with him to watch football games. Although for the first years he brought all the uniforms home for me to wash. But, we just really enjoyed it,” she said. “We’ve made so many friends, so many lifetime friends.”
The Mooneys, who met while at Ferrum College—then a junior college—also have two children and one grandchild.
William Monroe will honor that first football team at the Sept. 20 home game against Madison County High School, a rivalry since day one.
“We’ve had some good teams. I mean, nothing like Madison has had, but we are catching up with them right quick,” Mooney laughed. “Somebody asked me because we’ve beaten them the last 10-12 years why I couldn’t beat them. I said, ‘Listen, buddy, didn’t nobody else beat them either.’ We did win Skyline every year they weren’t in it.”
Mooney, who finished his career with more than 160 wins, said without hesitation, even knowing how hard it was, that he’d still have taken that job 50 years ago.
“It was really a good ride,” he said. “I can honestly say we both enjoyed it.”
Who were the first Dragons on the gridiron?
The William Monroe High School Administration and Athletic Department would like to invite all members of the first-ever William Monroe Football team for a reunion at its Sept. 20 home game versus rival Madison County. To RSVP, contact Brian Collier at firstname.lastname@example.org or call the school at (434) 939-9004 or Alice Mooney at (434) 985-7388.
Here is a roster of the first team, please spread the word. Several of them are still local, but others they have no idea how to reach. If you know anyone on the list, please share. And if they are missing anyone please let the school know:
Roster: Allen Brahnam, Thomas Bredeen, Garland Davis (deceased), Frank Daniel (deceased), George Decker (deceased), Danny Greene, Thomas Greene, Greg Haney (deceased), Sammy Jarrell, Gary Lam, Paul Lamb, Steve Lamb, Steve Lawson, Sherman Mallory, Donald Massie, Bob McDaniel, Wayne Morris, Nolan Morris, Dale Payton, Ray Powell, Kenny Snow, Michael Snow, Davis Thompson, Charles Watson, Gary Wells, Greg Wells, Jerry Wills, Teddy Roach and Roy Collier.
Coaches Martin Mooney, Hunter Birckhead, Terry Arbogast and Shawn Mooney
Athletic Director Doyle Dawson
Principal William Wade